Virtual influencers, and by that, I mean influencers who are not real humans but digital creations, are changing how luxury fashion houses are marketing their campaigns. Although this recent trend mainly started among big brands, it seems like it may soon filter down and change fashion marketing altogether—and therefore the entire fashion industry as we know it. What brought this shift? And what potential do these virtual influencers represent for brands?
While we all witnessed Lil Miquela’s rise to fame during the last few years, so far, virtual avatars have always been introduced by luxury brands as ‘side projects’. Dressing up one of them in a head to toe Charlotte Knowles look was a way of portraying your brand as young and fun (but still expensive). Yet, luxury brands remained careful and never used a ‘robot’ to promote a new season’s campaign.
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At least, until now. On the first day of July, 2020, Burberry started an unconventional trend by pioneering the use of AI to promote its new TB Summer Monogram collection. Will this be the new normal when it comes to advertising in consumer-driven industries like fashion, and is this for better or for worse?
Screen Shot spoke to Ash Koosher, innovator and co-founder of Auxuman, who commented on virtual influencers within the fashion industry, and where he thought the future might be headed. “In the fashion [industry], the core focus is on modelling, story-worlds and presentation. Due to the rapid growth of the influencing market on social media platforms, the demand has exceeded the presentation capabilities, therefore we see a spike in attempts to bring virtual influencers and models to present digital versions of fashion and clothing presentation. Partly gaming aesthetics has helped virtual IP to become more familiar to the eye of the user and has proven that virtual entities offer diversity, neutrality and up-to-trends style.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fashion industry has been pushed to innovate in much more creative ways than ever before, especially when it comes to generating imagery that is up to date with upcoming collections.
With social distancing rules in place, Burberry’s art directors and photographers were challenged into finding ways to capture their cover stars over FaceTime or having the models shoot themselves at home. One of those models was Kendall Jenner, who photographed herself wearing a bodysuit covered in the interlocking letter print, T and B, which stands for the company’s founder Thomas Burberry. This campaign was made up of two parts, one being the raw images, and the other being a futuristic video where a Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) version of the supermodel took centre stage.
In its video campaign, Burberry used a digital version of Jenner and set her against a minimalist CGI background of an empty swimming pool, created by using a combination of real-life movement and CGI technology. The chief creative Riccardo Tisci worked with long time Burberry photographer Nick Knight and art director Peter Saville on the visuals for the campaign, and Katy England was on the styling.
Jenner showed off the TB summer monogram collection by virtually navigating the swimming pool that doubled as a skatepark, which was inspired by the colourful and dynamic nature of the clothing. Burberry showed that in a fantastical world, anything is possible—pandemic or no pandemic.
Pushing limits further than the TB Summer Monogram campaign, Burberry expanded its exploration of the virtual world by creating a water sports video game called B Surf, which was launched globally on its website. In this revisited Animal Crossing, players are able to choose their own surfboards and personalised avatars that they can dress in outfits from the TB Summer Monogram collection. The game consists of a race around a TB-shaped track.
Still, the fashion powerhouse didn’t stop there. With an idea sparked by the lack of travelling that took place this year due to COVID-19, Burberry filmed and curated three ‘landscapes’ with videographers and designers to take their web-browsers on a trip and discover what inspired the company based on the travel and adventure we were all missing out during this year. This allowed Burberry to make travelling ‘accessible’ to consumers in a safe and secure way, in a world where safety and hygiene have become the two main concerns.
These landscapes all feature the brand’s T and B logo in different ways. The project was introduced on Burberry’s website as “the next chapter of our TB Summer Monogram campaign: a free-spirited exploration of optimism, escapism and our heritage of the outdoors, captured through three breathtaking vistas featuring the Thomas Burberry Monogram.”
One of these views consisted of four real-life hot air balloons available through the video captioned “As dawn breaks, four hot air balloons take flight across the landscape of Wuhai in Inner Mongolia.” Hot air balloon pilot Cheng Peng said as quoted on Burberry’s website, that “When you see Wuhai from that height, you will be amazed by the wonder of nature. The Gande’er Mountain and the Yellow River have divided the ecosystem into a desert and a Hetao Plain full of life. You can’t imagine how spectacular the environment is until you are up in the sky.”
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Discover the latest evolution of our TB Summer Monogram campaign – a free-spirited exploration of optimism, escapism and our heritage of discovery, captured through three breathtaking vistas . ‘When you see Wuhai from that height, you will be amazed by the wonder of nature… You can’t imagine how spectacular the environment is until you are up in the sky.’ – Cheng Peng, Hot Air Balloon Pilot . #Burberry #ThomasBurberryMonogram
Other landscapes celebrated by Burberry included a fleet of sailboats where the sails were printed with the monogram collection logo and an impressive sand inscription where the logo was drawn onto dunes in Dubai, which showed exactly how the brand wanted to collaborate with nature to promote its new collection.
Speaking to The Drum, Sara Vanore Rewkiewicz, director of youth oracles at ODD London, an agency specialising in the fashion sector, explained that “Not only is Burberry attempting to collaborate with nature, it’s also pushing brands they were once in competition with into collaborations too, such as their Vivienne Westwood limited edition release.”
Rewkiewicz added that “What will be interesting is to see how they take these efforts to the next level to not just be ready for right now, but truly fit for the future. Peak Youth and Peak Consumerism is upon us. The real test of Burberry’s transformation programme will be can it meet the scale and pace of change that gen Z demands, and will demand even more of, from brands.”
Actually, this recent VR initiative was driven by a backlash from gen Z, along with the rest of the world, after the brand previously destroyed up to £28.6 million worth of unsold goods in 2017. Reuben Turner, creative partner at the creative agency The Good Agency reflected that “Burberry’s recovery shows that brands who make the right decisions on sustainability can recover from PR disasters. Burberry committed to change, and that’s going to be important for young, affluent, climate-conscious consumers who are rejecting fast fashion in favour of buying fewer, better items.”
“Burberry making less, more carefully, chimes with their values and that has to be a win-win,” concluded Turner. In other words, Burberry’s use of AI avatars and virtual worlds created a well-needed sense of intimacy between the brand and its customers. Digital dialogues and playful campaigns are helping to re-ignite closeness and pleasure among the new generation.
Other than Burberry and Lil Miquela, virtual influencing has become appealing to a few other luxury marketers. Gucci previously ‘hired’ a 23-year-old Japanese robot called Erica and launched a campaign in partnership with WeChat titled ‘Why are you scared of me?’. In this online videos series, which aimed to connect the brand with its luxury-loving Chinese audience, Erica the robot was dressed in Gucci’s new collection from head to toe and was armed with 13 microphones, so she could sense who is talking to her as well as 24 sensors that could track people around her who were trying to talk to her. This campaign marked Gucci as the first luxury retailer to use robotic influencers for marketing purposes in the Chinese market.
When we spoke to Koosha more on the topic of potential benefits of using virtual avatars for marketing purposes in future he said that “Virtual avatars have unique qualities that make human presenters redundant. One of these qualities is in production: to be able to re-shape and schedule a virtual avatar without intrusive planning for performance, specifically when ad campaigns have target dates and need AB testing of content that will guarantee a higher success in terms of engagement.”
So, who makes money from these virtual influencers and robots that are seemingly shaking up the fashion world? As it turns out, these virtual models also have agents, just like a human influencer. They have followers on social media platforms, a voice as well as a personality, making them quite real to many. Their appearances range from Bratz doll look-alike Noonoouri to hyperreal Shudu. Like any agent, these influencers’ lives are carefully curated. Creators choose who they ‘hang out with’ or ‘fall out with’, who they collaborate with, and get to keep the money that their creations make from brand deals.
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After spending most of 2019 wondering whether AI avatars could truly become the new generation’s influencers of choice, the COVID-19 pandemic gave the fashion industry the final push it needed to realise the potential that avatars represent. The need for touchless retail helped accelerate the growth of digital tools and virtual spaces that customers can engage with from their home. Animation has been pushed to all heights by the lack of human contact we have received during lockdown, and now AI influencers have crawled out of their screens and are coming to life.
Koosha also reminded us that by “Looking back at the history of digital IP such as Mickey Mouse and many other franchises, we’ve been preparing for integration of product and fantasy which in the current times is delivered through a variety of technologies including, VR, Synthetic Reality/media (deepfakes, CGI, Voice, Bots) and usage of AR.”
With all of this in mind, the real question doesn’t lie in whether these digital creations will influence the fashion industry—they already are—but more in how they will also change the way we shop. Slow fashion is on the rise, and hopefully, it will continue that way. Products are, in Burberry’s case, being made as they are being purchased by the public. Virtual influencers are only just being tapped into, and while the fashion industry being paired with digitally-generated avatars is an unlikely match, it somehow makes sense. After all, online shopping in 2020 has become commonplace and digital connection is now the industry’s new goal. The next question we’ll leave you with is: How will brands improve the crucial experience of online shopping?